Film Review: Alice in Wonderland – Burton’s made Jumbleland

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I took the rental disc up to the desk.

“Ooh, Alice in Wonderland,” said the girl.

“Is it any good?” I asked –

– “Well, it’s very………….Tim Burton. Oh, and nothing like the original.”

Unwittingly, in eleven words she had given me the perfect basis on which to review this film.


Considering her initial comment first; Yes – Alice in Wonderland is very ‘Tim Burton.’ No sooner has Alice opened the tiny door into Wonderland, our eyes are greeted with a plethora of the weird and the wonderful. Burton’s Wonderland is definitively psychedelic – lurid and incandescent colours greet the viewer’s eye from all corners of the screen.

But somehow, as with this Director’s recent re-working of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the colours and textures are so vivid as to almost make the viewer’s retinas ache and eyes water within minutes: not so much dazzling as blinding. This film is unashamedly championing the very latest in CG technology – and it is undoubtedly impressive – rendering the terrifying and towering Bandersnatch down to the minute Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) brilliantly – however it doesn’t stop there. Almost everything in this film is computer generated, including over half the cast. Even the human actors are not safe from its influence as The Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) struts and pouts her way across the screen with an absurdly enlarged and bulbous head.

It may be argued that Wonderland should be precisely this – a pastiche, a ‘painting’ – something clearly different to our own world. However, such saturation of searingly strong tone, texture and colour manages to create only a world which is somehow alien – there is no clear parallel between Wonderland and ‘the real world,’ and so many of the subtle observations that this reality might provide on ‘Alice’s world’ are somehow lost amidst this environment, akin not so much to a painting as to an experiment in which a toddler uses scores of differently-coloured luminous highlighter pens, trying to fit a scribble from each one onto the same page.

There are other ‘Burtonisms’ present too; the director lends his own Halloween-esque gothic style to many of the cast and their costume – even the ethereal ‘White’ Queen (Anne Hathaway) is given black nails, thick black eyebrows and black lenses, against an otherwise entirely pristine rendering; white hair falling onto pale, white skin.

Similarly old ‘horror’ friend Christopher Lee is again called on, this time cast as the voice of the Jabberwocky.

Most predictable of all though, it is Johnny Depp who plays the Mad Hatter, Burton and Depp now seemingly unable to make a film without the other. Yet whilst Depp is nothing if not a master at re-inventing himself, having had to already play Edward Scissorhands, Ichabod Crane, Victor Van Dort, Willie Wonka and now the Mad Hatter under Burton’s direction, even this so-often proclaimed ‘master of versatility’ seems to be struggling a little to pull yet another unique character performance out of his over-sized hat.

As a result he seems to follow the director’s underlying stylistic trait of this film by performing an amalgam – The Hatter is part Willie Wonka with a sizeable dash of Captain Jack-Sparrow finished with a sprinkle of his latest performance as one of the ‘Tony’s’ in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Most disconcerting of all his occasional (and entirely unexplained) drifting into broad Glaswegian accent reminded me weirdly of Andy Serkis’ brilliant portrayal of Ian Brady in the superb television drama Longford. It was mad, but somehow the wrong sort of mad.

As the character who fronts nearly all of the film’s advertising and merchandising, it is especially disappointing that Depp’s Hatter is such a weak and watery character – primarily through the Director’s asking him to be a million things rolled into one – ranging from distressed and misplaced outcast to unlikely hero, from mysterious riddle-teller to ‘funny-man’, providing most of the ‘kiddie humour’ as well as trying to hold together several strands of the plot.

Readers familiar with Carroll’s Wonderland and (mercifully) not with Burton’s will at this stage most likely be a little concerned at what I have written so far.

Which brings me neatly on to the second part of this review; this is not an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

There is not enough room within this review to list all of the differences/additions to the original tale – not least that Alice is not a child, and this is in fact her return to Wonderland, whereby she is re-united with the characters she had met before to fulfil a prophecy and slay the Jabberwocky on upon the ‘frabjous’ day.

This brief synopsis is alone enough to indicate the lack of fidelity it holds to its namesake.

I studied the original at University and researched it for my dissertation, so I would say I’m reasonably au fait with the narrative and its history. Yet within fifteen minutes of watching the film I had not the faintest idea what was playing out before my eyes.

I can only deduce that the ‘creative process’ behind this film’s writing was a day’s work that went something like this:


(Writer) Linda Woolverton sat and looked thoroughly through Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

and then threw it in the bin.

She then looked up the synopsis on Wikipedia and said “Ooh, I like that part, oh and that character – that poem’s good so we will put that in…erm… we’ll cut that whole part out – but put that bit in (only once we’ve changed it of course) – I also love that bit – so I’ll change that too. Ok – now let’s invent this character……and this one and this one. Hmmm – something’s missing – What does the mouse at the tea-party do in the original? Fall asleep??!! Is that all? I don’t care that he’s a dormouse and ‘that’s what they do.’ –I don’t like that one bit – actually I far prefer that sword-wielding mouse from Narnia, what’s his name? Reepicheep? Yeah, let’s put him in instead.  And whilst we’re on the subject of recent adaptations, let’s have a massive battle-scene at the end – clearly signifying good and evil – just like in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers with lightning in the background and some really amazing special-effects and everything. Then we’ll just sprinkle it with some ‘Shrek-esque’ humour…….I know – let’s have The Hatter do a ridiculous dance-routine – that’s right, a dance-routine and we’ll call it……. ‘the futterwacken!’ because that sounds vaguely rude! [Suppresses a laugh.]

Ok, well that seems about done…..Oh wait – I just need to give the Caterpillar a name – I mean he can’t just be ‘The Caterpillar’, can he? Let’s call him…..Absolem. Yeah – ‘cause that sounds like something Latin – they use that in the Harry Potter films so everyone will like that. Right, job done.

Now I need to go out and buy some more crayons…………………..


This may sound unnecessarily harsh but to all intents and purposes this film simply isn’t Alice in Wonderland.’ If it had been titled differently, and then referenced as ‘Inspired by…’ then I could review it in an entirely different light. I think this is best summarised by a post I read on an internet forum after watching the film which read:

“Why didn’t they just follow the original story and re-animate John Tenniel’s drawings?”

Clearly, I was not the only viewer who felt somewhat as though they had just tumbled down a rabbit-hole.

Of course, I recognise that all book-film adaptations are altered/edited to fit a time-restricted visual format. However this adaptation changes so much that it ostensibly takes the original as ‘something which gives me an idea…’, rather than a plot.

In fairness, if you are simply looking for a film to entertain the kids then I’m sure this will do nicely. My only concern would be that they might follow the recent trend of Harry Potter viewers and then want to read the book. In which case I’m sure they will end up just as confused as I was when watching this film.

For Lewis Carroll fans who want to see a faithful adaptation of Alice, Disney’s original animated release is, although also an amalgam of both texts, a far more representative portrayal of the text. Alternatively, for those looking for a film that captures some of the surreal, slightly distubing cocktail of sensibility and absurdity within Carroll’s original I would reccomend Jan Svankmejer’s eerily wonderful rendition (Neco Z Alenky, 1988). This somehow manages to capture a little of the ‘essence’ of Alice: that sense of disorientation, the sense of wonder, of exuberance and of anarchy.

And the best thing about it?

There isn’t a single dance-routine throughout.

One Response

  1. I like to think that, as with Planet of the Apes, Burton had a clear vision for this movie, but that said vision was torn apart by the investors and stitched together until it resembled something they wanted to see.

    Yes, I agree that with such a rich source of character and story to draw from, it was unnecessary to engage in such wholesale reinvention.

    (And Alice’s return to the real world at the end struck me as unnecessary. Who would run back to the life she’d come from, when Underland was so fascinating? To run a merchant vessel? While wearing a dress? I’d like to see the state she was in by the time they reached the Orient. She’d have learned a thing or two about sailors, at the very least.)